Giving Juilliard a Try

by Ryan Spahn, 4th-year actor

To be frank, the thought of going to school for four years scared the &$@! out of me. I was in my late 20s, had a job, an apartment, a partner, a dog/cat, and a career. All that being said, I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting the kind of acting work I felt I deserved, and I was considering walking away from it all. This broke my heart, cause it’s what I loved most. But I couldn’t put my finger on what was in my way. Someone close to me encouraged me to give Juilliard a try. I figured… “Hey, it’s Juilliard, the greatest drama school on Earth, and if I am privileged enough to be accepted, then I should take that as my path toward figuring out why I’m not happy and grateful.”

In the Drama Division, there is a final callback weekend when 40 or so applicants come to NYC and take classes in front of the faculty. It’s a chance for the teachers to see us in action, and for us to determine if the rigor of the program is what’s best. In one of the classes, Richard Feldman moderates the students through a series of naturalistic improvisations. I was paired with Sam Lilja, who later became my classmate, and I remember the moment when I realized Juilliard was what I needed to be doing for the next four years. The improv: Sam and I had to pretend we were in a small row boat. That was all the information we were given, and we developed a scene that would support this location. Sam and I had an immediate connection as actors and people. Within a few moments of us starting the improv, which was simply Sam (a boy from Iowa) teaching me (a big city boy) how to properly prep a fishing rod, Mr. Feldman ended our improv and moved onto the next couple. It was then that I realized a few valuable lessons: a) I wanted to attend this school; b) I knew naturalistic acting was what I was drawn to; c) I had a long way to go before I was able to do the kind of work I yearned to do with the ease of this simple improv.

Prior to that moment, I had always been pushing and “muscling” my way through acting moments, and I needed to stop…as it was preventing me from getting work. Through my years at school, I was stretched and pushed beyond my comfort zone, and played bold, brassy characters (Herod in “Salome” and Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night”). Yet…lurking in the back of my mind… was a desire to step back into the “naturalistic.” But it wasn’t happening. I was frustrated. This is where the brilliance of the school comes in. Because they didn’t give me what I wanted and challenged me with what I needed, I was able to actually grow. And now, in my fourth year, Sam and I were paired up in a very naturalistic play called “The Great God Pan” by Amy Herzog. While in rehearsals, I couldn’t help but remember my first moments with Sam in the audition weekend and now here we were — sharing the stage, with ease and grace. I was doing the kind of work I always loved and admired — but with the backbone and confidence of a man who had the instrument to handle the most intense of circumstances, as this play required. Juilliard single-handedly gave me this depth of understanding, and for that I am eternally grateful.